The good news about today’s 24/7 workplace is that it gives us the freedom to get work done nearly anywhere at any time. The bad news is that can quickly become everywhere, all the time. How can we be sure that we’re being responsive (and responsible) without becoming a slave to communication?
Study after study shows that (as is so often the case in life) the thing that makes our lives easier also makes it harder to break away – our phones. In fact, collectively Americans check their phones 8 Billion times a day. (That’s all Americans, not just you. The average person checks it 34 times, if it makes you feel better—and it probably shouldn’t). But every time you check for messages, status updates or cat videos, you are not doing something else… and it’s not just the time spent, it’s the constant interruptions to more important and productive work.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal. My personal experience shows that it takes less than 6 seconds to identify a forwarded political email from my brother-in-law and delete it unread, but it takes at least three times that long to stop what I’m doing, check my phone, delete the message, mutter terrible things under my breath, ask “Now where was I?” and get back to work. Multiply that by 34 or 40 and you begin to see the problem.
How do you strike a balance between being a responsible person—after all, customers, teammates and others depend on us to get their work done—and allowing our obsession to interfere with our best work? Here are some tips:
- When you need uninterrupted time, place the offending device literally out of reach. I have a lower shelf on my desk that is far enough away I have to actually think about reaching for it. If it’s within arm’s reach, l’ll grab it without thinking. If I have to bend, stretch and move…. Well I try to avoid those things at the best of times.
- Block time to check, and only check during that time. I know you’ve heard this one before, and it works. But it takes way more discipline than most people have. Still, give it a try. You might be a stronger person than I.
- There’s a difference between reading and responding. Often we stop more productive work in order to answer an email or text, but ask yourself two questions. 1) Is answering this more important than what I’m doing? And 2) Has the other person implied or said there’s a deadline? Not only can a lot of requests and demands wait, but if you wait long enough, someone else will handle it for you. I don’t mean that in a procrastination-avoiding way; I mean sometimes there are people besides you who can solve the problem.
- Part of the problem is that we have our personal and work communication on the same device. Remove the audible and some visual notification signals from your personal email. Since we probably want to keep abreast of work (during working hours), we can at least not respond like Pavlov’s dog. Even if we don’t respond to personal stuff during work, even acknowledging it is a stressful distraction.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is talk to your manager and teammates about reasonable response times and expectations. Do they really expect you to answer an email when you’re at your kid’s soccer game? If I send an email after hours, is it too much to ask the other person to respond in the morning?
A lot of this stress is self-inflicted. In our desire to be seen as good employees and team-mates, we create unreasonable expectations on ourselves. Give yourself a break.
In our Remote Leadership Certificate Series, we address some of the biggest challenges that leaders or remote or hybrid teams face, including how to communicate from a distance, how to coach virtual employees, how to build relationships with people you don’t see every day and much more. Learn more here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.